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03 May 2017

Turkey’s many open fronts

In the last couple of years, Turkey has a number of, either external or internal, fronts open. The 78-million people country which, until some years ago, was considered a beacon of stability in the area of South-East Europe and the Middle East, has turned into an example of instability. Tayip Erdogan holds the full responsibility for this change.

Erdogan was elected president in 2014, after serving for nine years as prime minister. Since his election as president, he set up a plan of assuming all powers making him the dominant person in the Turkish political scene. In July 2016, Erdogan faced a coup d’état by the military that ultimately failed. Declaring a state of emergency helped him to strike a major blow against the Kemalist officers, who never were too fond of him because of his Islamist past. He also outmaneuvered his ex-ally Fethullah Gulen, who was accused of orchestrating the move against the Republic.

The state of emergency freed Erdogan to act as he wanted. He imprisoned tens of thousands accused of belonging to FETO, an alleged terrorist organisation led by Gulen, who resided in the US. Numerous torture accusations circle the media with Erdogan constantly reminding that the failed coup was planned by secret services and terrorists outside of Turkey. Military and police officers, judges, public employees, journalists, lawyers, even soccer players have ended up in prisons without a fair trial.

Erdogan won, with a small margin, April’s referendum which enabled him to proceed to a constitutional reform that will give the president total power over Turkey. Erdogan seems to have dealt with his Kemalist and Gulenist rivals, but the Kurdish nemesis is there to obstruct his plans. The Kurdish left-wing PKK party, who have been fighting for Kurdistan’s independence in the south-east of Turkey for 35 years, got severely battered by the Turkish army with the local population suffering from actions that could be considered atrocities. However, the Kurds have planted bombs in key points of cities like Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, frightening both the Turks and the tourists. The number of visitors has dropped significantly lately, becoming a major problem for the economy.

Apart from the Kurds in Turkey, Erdogan must face the Kurds of Syria and Iraq who have found the opportunity to build a new and free Kurd state, taking advantage of the civil war in Syria and the presence of the Islamic State in Iraq. Turkish secret services have been accused of helping ISIS with manpower and arms in order to destabilise Syria and bring the Kurds in a difficult position. The failure of ISIS to advance against Assad and the Iraqi government, made Turkey shift strategy so it can fill in the vacuum. Operation “Euphrates Shield” was targeted against ISIS, but also against Kurdish forces along the borderline with Syria. During a strike by Turkish airplanes that bombed a Kurdish base, the lives of US soldiers present in the area were put to danger. The reckless Turkish action infuriated the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who had a heated conversation with Mevlut Cavusoglu, confirming that the relationships between the two nations are in the worst level.

In Europe, Erdogan tried to rally his supporters to vote in his favour in the referendum. As the skilled rhetor that he is, the Turkish president accused the Europeans of being Nazis and of having an anti-Muslim behaviour. Countries such as the Netherlands and Germany had denied allowing Turkish politicians to talk to crowds of Turkish expats. The rift between Turkey and the European Union is still there, although Erdogan got what he wanted and won the referendum. On Tuesday, the president said that “there is no other option than opening charters that you have not opened until now. If you open them, great. If you don’t, then goodbye. Turkey is not the EU’s doorman.” Erdogan was referring to the long-running EU membership process that is stalling because Brussels accuse the Turkish government for violation of human rights.

On Wednesday, the European Commissioner who oversees membership bids, Johannes Hahn, said that “everybody’s clear that, currently at least, Turkey is moving away from a European perspective. We have to see what could be done in the future, to see if we can restart some kind of cooperation.” Some EU lawmakers have asked for a formal halt of the negotiation process, suggesting that Turkey doesn’t meet the democratic criteria to be considered a candidate.

German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, believes that the role of Turkey is too important to be ignored. “You should not just push away such a partner, even in view of negative developments that we must address. We in Europe must jointly discuss what sort of future relationship we want with Turkey,” Merkel said, adding that Erdogan would cross a red line if he decided to re-introduce the death penalty.

Moving on to the south sea borders with Cyprus, Turkey seems to drive the negotiations about the reunification of the island to a dead end. Turkey stated that it considers “provocative” the act of the Cypriot government to grant a license to ENI and TOTAL oil companies, for the exploitation of Block 6 in the south west of the island. The Cypriot government has given the right of exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons on its continental shelf to some US and European oil and gas companies. In retaliation, the Turkish navy conducts military drills near the island, making the relationships between the two countries worse.

Erdogan plans to be the absolute ruler of Turkey for the next years. His vision is turning Turkey in a regional super-power, but it is unknown how its neighbours and allies are going to react to that. The fear that the country will eventually descend into chaos is getting stronger every day.